In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, the newly proclaimed “United States of America” were anything but. Loosely affiliated under the Articles of Confederation, the 13 states pursued their own agendas.
In “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789,” Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis tells the story of how this heterogeneous mass was made to steer to the same point. Ellis (“American Sphinx,” “Passionate Sage”) lives and breathes the Founders, and he deploys his customary zip and trenchant scholarship in showing how four central figures – Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison – conceived and promoted a new political framework built on the Constitution.
Combining sharp analysis with lively narration, Ellis traces these eventful years and the debate, culminating in the ratification process of 1787-88, over how the new nation would be governed with the quartet leading the way. His account of the run-up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the subsequent state-by-state ratification process almost reads like a thriller. New Yorker Hamilton, fearful that anarchy was looming, developed a national vision first; Madison was just a bit behind. Jay, serving as foreign affairs secretary, was trying to fashion coherent foreign policy. But all agreed that if their efforts were to succeed, a reluctant Washington, who had retired to Mount Vernon, had to be on board. Washington’s revolutionary credentials were unassailable.
Ellis sometimes defaults to grandiose mode – “four men made history happen in a series of political decisions and actions that, in terms of their consequences, have no equal in American history.” But the Constitution has proved remarkably durable, and still reflects the arguments Americans have about how we should govern ourselves.
The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
by Joseph J. Ellis
Alfred A. Knopf (290 pages, $27.95)